tv Tavis Smiley WHUT October 30, 2009 8:30am-9:00am EDT
tavis: good evening. from los angeles, i am tavis smiley. tonight, our conversation with the first african-american to lead it and i believe instition, dr. ruth simmons from brown university. she is the youngest of 12 children born to texas sharecroppers. despite her difficult circumstances, she grows to the ranks of academia and is considered one of the preeminent figures and all of education. we're glad you joined us. dr. ruth simmons, coming up right now. >> there are so many things that walmart is looking forward to doing, like helping people live better. but mostly, we're helping build stronger communities and relationships. with your help, the best is yet to come. >> nationwide insurance proudly
supports "tavis smiley." tavis and nationwide, working to improve financial literacy and the economic empowerment that comes with it. >> ♪ nationwide is on your side ♪ >> and by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. [captioning made possible by kcet public television] tavis: pleased and honored to welcome dr. ruth simmons to this program. in 2001, she took over as president for brown university, the first african-american to lead an ivy league institution. she was the youngest of 12
children. dr. simmons, an honor to have you on this program. >> thank you. tavis: we finally got you here to l.a. think for coming to see us. >> my plsure. tavis: you are in town to talk about what happens when women run things. what happens. what is the answer to that question? >> it is not a short answer. tavis: we have time. >> i think that the emphasis that maria shriver is placing on the role of women is encouraging them to think about the seriousness of being responsible in the positions that they enjoy. the first wave of women who came into these professions and who rose to leadership positions were concerned about measuring up. and doing as good as men before them had. as well as the man before them.
now the leadership is all about something else. it does about managing -- is about managing your lives, their responsibilities, the civic responsibilities. it is much broader than just succeeding as an individual. i think trying to shape the world and leadership differently is what this is about. tavis: how have you personally navigated your definition of measuring up? i think every woman has felt or feels that pressure, rightly or wrongly. telme aut your experience measuring out. >> i think given my generation, when i was born and brought up in texas increase civil rights days, my own experience -- when i was born and brought up in texas in pre-civil rights days, my experience, i was told as a child that i would never measure up. everything said that you can
never achieve. for me, this journey has been largely about discovery. discovering who i am, discovering what i can do, discovering what i can do to help others. and in a sense, refuting those stereotypes and stigmas that i grew up with. it is still a challenge even for me today, leading a major university, to recognize that, gee, this is something i can do. i continue to run show -- i continued to wrestle with that, and thinking about leadership is sorting out that and how you could be of service to others who have the same dilemma. one of the things i love is that i see so many young hispanic students, other minorities,oor white students who come to brown, for example, who have a very simple thing they need to
feel. one, they need to feel that they belong. they need to feel that they deserve to be there. and they need to feel there is respect for them. in a strange way, that is my eye to see is really about trying to give that to others. a few people gave that to me and as a consequence i was able to do something with my life. tavis: you have said so much that i want to go back and look at. but start with, when you talk about poor students, you qualified poor, but to get a chance to attend brown. that has been one of your hallmarks, making sure that no student deserves to go abroad but cannot afford it would be turned away. -- who deserve to go to brown but cannot afford it would not be turned away. am i think this is one of the great responsibilities that nations have, particularly with the tradition we have.
everyone who was born in this country should believe in their heart of hearts that with the right amount of work and the right amount of help that they can do anything and that is solely based on their character and on the promise and talent and their ambition. we wanted very much at brown to make sure that this idea, which schools not being for poor kids, was eliminated. that means no matter what your personal circumstances, if you are admitted, then you will get enough money to co to brown. if you are very poor, that means no loans, you get full scholarship. that is very important for families, for example, in brown still try to figure out how to make an ivy league education work. -- that is very important for families and brownsville.
they come to the university knowing that they had everything they need to go to college. tavis: you kept using the word "discovery this journey of discovery that you have been on ," and that he could be the president of an institution. you said that you still wrestle with that. tell me about the challenges that a black woman has navigating that journey of discovery? >> i think it starts as a child. i have to put my own discovery into the context of how i was reared. tavis: that is an old school word, reared. i love that. that reminds me of my mother. i was not raised, i was reared. >> the last of 12 children, seven brothers. in a very traditional family,
where my father was the absolute authority in the family. so coming from that context, i did not growing up feeling as the girl that i was entitled to the same things that my brothers were entitled to. they would disagree with this, i can hear them complaining now. tavis: i will get e-mail. >> so i think the first thing is that the child, in a very careful way, begins to discover, gee, maybe that is not true. maybe i could be as smart as them, maybe i could be as achievement-oriented as them, maybe i could do things, to. it starts there. i am thankful that i had older sisters who led the way shelling that we should have some strong
self identity as girls. from there, through school, just figuring out that diahann the class was the smartest thing ever and for the longest i did not think i deserve to be in that class. i think frankly i held myself that a lot when i was in grade school, even junior high and high school, because i thought the guys should be first in the class. working against that and finally trying to discover what i would be comfortable being. also, what was social expect it -- accepted in my family and my social group. in our community, we still have problems with women achieving. we believe that men, black men, should be out front, accomplishing more, and that is problematic for women to be
doing what i am doing, for example. more than a male. let me just say that people always refer to me as the first black woman president of an ivy league university. they never say the first black president. tavis: i did a moment ago. i did both. am i am saying generally, because that is so deeply embedded in our culture. i think it is the case that what we've learned to do is accommodate those feelings by trying to be nonthreatening, by trying to demonstrate that we are women, that we want everything that any normal woman once, at the same time think that we can do that and achieved as well. that is a constant struggle for most of the woman that i know in my age group. i think it is even more so for the other women who are coming along today. tavis: the irony of this is i
have always believed since i started studying this that i think women are smarter than men, on balance. >> i would not agree. tavis: we will not debate that. but that said, what the make of this particular irony, the time that you grew up in, one could make the case now that in the black community specifically that women are the overachievers. there are all kinds of stats about the difficulty and challenges that bck men are having and that women are the super achievers in our community. >> i think that is one of the holdovers from the bigotry, the long history of discrimination in this country, it was easier for women that was for men. to some extent, that is still true. i had a conversation with a very powerful group of men recently at the top of their profession, and they said something very
shocking to me. i should say african-american men. at the top of their profession. they are wealthy, accomplished, they have done all the right things. when asked them about the workplace, what they do in the workplace, they said make every effort to shrink in size and not to be intimidating to their co- workers. that is how long-lasting this stigma at is. so i think it is not surprising to me that women are in fact overachieving to that degree, because in a sense, we did not have the same impediments. at the same time, i think the educational system has become, in an odd way, -- this is controversial to say this, but antithetic all to the way that boys are socialized.
as a teacher, what do i want? i want you to come into my class and sit down and be quiet and to all of your assignments the way that i want, to be on time and so forth. women are socialized to do all those things. what ever you tell me to do as a teacher, i will do it because i want to get the start of my paper -- i want to get the star on my paper. many boys are relegated to, oh, dear, special class is because of behavioral issues. that sets them on a path, often, where, as you know, high dropout rates for males, and that is true in a number of different categories. it is true for african- americans, hispanic americans, and more true for wte americans, this issue of boys in school. i think it is easier for girls to come through that process and succeed. colleges reward good behavior.
behavior is testing well, making a's, not making c's for being so much a slow developer. colleges reward people who are fast developers. often, boys, as we know, developed somewhat more slowly than girls. tavis: we have skimmed the surface, but i want to come back to your personal educatnal odyssey. i revel in your accomplishment as the president of brown, but is still a fascinating journey for me from that family in texas, where you were so poor that your family cannot even afford books. tell me about, and you hit on it earlier, how you develop a love of education. how did that happen? >> this is the great thing
about the kind of society that we can have. it would ever families did not have, we have decided that society provided. that is the duty. it is true that my family was at a point that they were desperately poor, not able to provide those things, but there is a community center where my brother was able to go and learn how to play basketball and get a basketball scholarship to go to previous -- to go to prairie view, and spent his life as coach. there were community centers or we could get books and take them home and read them. or get involved in other kinds of cultural events. this is why what we provide in our schools, arts education, music, a variety of things, is so important to so many children who do not have that at home. i found my way at school.
i had teachers who said, gee, you seem pretty smart, let me find more books for you or let me take you to a plate or let me see if maybe you could get into college. teachers, teachers, teachers, plus all the other help we had really outside of the home. that is really my story. i was hungry for it and i took advantage of it. as a consequence, i was able to go to college. that is really what made this possible for me. tavis: to questions relative to your college years. what about hbcu's, he went to an historic fleet black college or university. tell me about your -- you went to in historically black college or university. to me about your experience there. now that we have a black president, i talk about the baby
near when we need to do away with pete poll -- of the day being near that we need to do away with segregated schools. tell me about your experience and your assessment of whether there is still a need for hbcu's. >> i think it is a lovely idea, but practically speaking i went to dillard because my teacher was very concerned that if i went to another university that i might not have the same opportunity to act in plays, because at the time i was going to be a drama major. she recommended dillard because it was a black college and she thought i would have the chance, more of a chance to get roles and be successful in the theater. of course, i did not do theater, that is beside the point. she thought that was a good reason to go. as for hbcu's, very valuable.
hispanic serving institutions, very valuable. community institutions, very valuable. religious institutions, great. what has been great about this educational system in our country is is the first. we do not all have to be the same. we do not have to be different -- we can be different and still be unified. i was president of a women's college. women's college. some people think that is a throwback, butonestly, for the students who are able to go to smith or wellesley, that is a good experience for them. education is so valuable that we should be trying to found as many different kinds of institutions to capture the interests and imaginations of students. i applaud diversity in our educational institutions. tavis: 1 my radio program in a couple of weeks ago -- on my
radio program a couple of weeks ago, was meant the entire show celebrating the 40th anniversary of black studies, african- american studies. we had a wonderful conversation about the 40th anniversary of these departments on major campuses in this country. one of your scholars, a professor roads, was part of that conversation. there were two things that came out of that. one, your sense of how we ought to be celebrating 40 years of teaching this on college campuses, and why brown has a department that it supports that does this kind of work? >> first of all, universities are all about knowledge. an inquiry. and there are so many different areas that are valid areas for inquiry. inquiry is all about going
through exacting process to wonder if fax that -- too onerous -- to unearth facts that we would not ordinarily a cat. we have sanskri at brown, we have middle eastern studies at brown. we have all different kinds of studies. university's study things. everything. this is something that people hear about. people hear about basket weaving, but really -- tavis: why is that not well understood? >> i think because so many people see a subject area at the university and day poo-poo it. why on earth are you studying that? that means, gee, i did not study that category. we study every conceivable thing. let me get back to africa
studies and african-american studies. for so long in our country, we've relegated anything having to do with african-american life, culture, and history to weigh non-academic approach -- to a non academic approach. african-american studies are all about explaining that african- american studies, just as any other legitimate area of study, was appropriate to undertake. here is the thing i would add to it that is important to me -- african-american studies has to be a serious inquiry. a cannot just be making people feel good about themselves -- they cannot just be making people feel good about themselves. if you wanted to feel good about yourself, go someplace else. that is not what african- american studies it does. that is supposed to be a critical perspective about
african-american life, what happened, why does it happen, what are the manifestations of african-american culture? do we understand it well enough? what is hip-hop all about? people confuse hip-hop and the study of have popped. the top may be a john r. that some people do not like or approve of, but it is a legitimate. the study -- it may be a genre that people do not approve of but it is a legitimate thing to study. i think as to be demanding an excellent scholarship, and that is what you see developing. tavis: how did you personally navigate going to school during the civil rights era and studying french? >> that was interesting. a lot of people did not approve because they thought i should be in something practical, like sociology or i should go to law school and do what thurgood marshall has done and so forth.
but i think it is possible for all of us to make our contributions to the world and also be happy. i was happy studying french. is a fascinating culture, fascinating language. i love literature. i was drawn to it the way that you would be to any interest. i owned it that i -- i owed it the way i could have done anything else as a student. it was very import because african-americans had a list of things they should study. tavis: i was reading the other day about your tenure at brow, and you are rare among college presidents. you have as we speak over 8% -- 80% approval rating amongst the students at brown. is tere anything more important u.s. president in terms of having the approval of all those on campus? -- is there anything more important to you as president in
terms of having the approval of all those on campus? >> it is not approval that is important to me. i want to do something that is meaningful, and what to do something that really makes a difference. if people approve, that is okay, but it is not what i seek. given the journey i had, i know you all understand this, given the journey i had in the people i have seen in that journey, it would be unworthy of me to do a job because there is some strong approval for it. i seem to be courageous enough to do what is different. it makes a little bit uncomfortable, frankly, having that degree of approval, but as i said it at the beginning, i am still on this journey of discovery and i am still not comfortable coming from where i came from with the fact that people approve of me. tavis: and that is why she is the president of brown and so
beloved, because of that demeanor and attitude. she is dr. ruth simmons, the first african-american woman, the first african american to lead an ivy league institution. and honored to have you on the program. >> my pleasure. tavis: catch me on the weekend on public radio international. access the podcast on pbs.org. until then, good night from l.a., and is always -- and as always, keep the faith. >> for more information on today's show, visit tavis smiley on pbs.org. tavis: hi, i am tavis smiley. join me next time for oscar- nominated actor edward norton. that is next time. we will see you then. >> there are so many things that walmart is looking forward to doing, like helpingeople live better. but mostly, we're helping build stronger communities and relationships. because with your help, the
best is yet to come. >> nationwide insurance proudly supports "tavis smiley." tavis and nationwide, working to improve financial literacy and the economic empowerment that comes with it. >> ♪ nationwide is on your side ♪ >> and by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. [captioning made possible by kcet public television] captioned by the national captioning institute --www.ncicap.org--